Tuesday, 25 December 2012

Making sense of the world: stories vs. TS Eliot

To generalise hugely, with no small sense of irony, it seems that people are far too keen on oversimplifications. Whether it be on a specific issue, like seeking a comprehensible trigger for a school shooting, or on a more general topic like dismissing those on benefits as skivers (or, in the interests of impartiality, dismissing the wealthiest in society as "the 1%"), we like to make sense of the world with explanations and categorisations that cannot do justice to reality.

Of course, it makes sense for us to do this. I don't know if I'm alone in being willing to confess that I rarely understand even my own motivations, but it's clear enough that across the world we often struggle to understand our closest friends and relations, never mind the vast majority of the other seven billion people in the world, or the still more complicated array of natural processes. In such a confusing and tumultuous world, any progress or decision depends on us finding shortcuts towards understanding.

It's clear, from the very very beginning, that literature and language have helped in this process. Foundational myths helped make sense of the most challenging natural phenomena, giving our ancestors a framework to understand what they were, where they came from and why they were here. Indeed even before that point the development of language marks the first step in our ordering of the universe - words work by designating multiple objects as being essentially the same - once you have a word for 'apple' you no longer have the daily challenge of understanding the round red thing in your hand which is slightly different to what you ate yesterday. 

Friday, 21 December 2012

Review: The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat by Oliver Sacks

(via ravithekavi)
Oliver Sacks states that he wants to return the narrative to medical science – an ideal dubbed 'romantic science'. His famous 1985 pop-science book attempts to do just that. Sacks offers a series of case histories, or, if you prefer, short stories, or character sketches, or maybe even prose poems. The case histories detail a variety of bizarre, unbelievable and fascinating neurological disorders (although, as Sacks would argue, disorder itself may be too pejorative a word). The book is prefaced with this epigram: “To talk of diseases is a sort of Arabian Nights entertainment.” We shall return to it in a moment.

Unfortunately, Sacks is not that effective at returning narrative to medicine. Perhaps trying to do so is foolhardy. Human life, and especially the life of the long term neurological patients described here, does not lend itself to the cleanness and clarity of narrative. Indeed, the very issues suffered by the patients – memory loss and alogia in particular – preclude narrative by their very nature. The problem Sacks constantly runs into, as a storyteller, is the fact that his patients' stories do not, and cannot end. All that is available for a chronic and incurable patient, with an untreatable, barely comprehensible condition, is death. There can be no closure here, no moment of epiphany. Many of the patients are not even capable of investing emotionally. How can you love someone if you can't remember who they are, or who you are?

Emotion, then, is usually infused into the stories my Sacks himself, as a retrospective narrator. In a sense, he is very good at this, and comes across as a profoundly empathic man and excellently caring doctor. But he is not good enough to fully humanise his subjects (note how easily they are referred to as subjects – there can be few more damning indictments!). They remain, terribly, grotesques.
An Arabian Nights' grotesque (via heritage-history.com)

Part of the problem here is the very impenetrability of the patients' mental states. How can a reader hope to comprehend, or a writer hope to describe, how the world looks to these suffers? How can we even speculate, when, fundamentally, we don't really understand what is going on in their brains?

Sacks's books is a noble attempt to address this problem warmly, without resorting to cold, clinical intellectualism. It is noble, but it is a failure. And, indeed, it suffers in trying to avoid such analysis. The reader is left desperately wanting to understand more about these people, and about the neuroscience behind their problems.

Sacks makes very little effort to describe his case histories from a scientific perspective – a strange decision for a pop-science book, and a strange decision for a doctor. He tries instead to write stories from a position of pathos. And we feel pathos. But the very strangeness of the illnesses, their fundamental incompatibility with everyday human experience, makes Sacks's case histories very alienating. And, by avoiding any attempt at contextualising their experience, Sacks makes them more alien, more grotesque, more like the fabulous case histories of the Arabian Nights.

Sunday, 25 November 2012

Genre Fiction and Literary Fiction

Perhaps I was always naive, but when I was growing up I didn't really pick up on the differences between literary fiction and not literary fiction. Probably this had a lot to do with my strongly trashy reading tastes: from Anthony Horowitz to James Patterson via Jodi Picoult, I was never in much danger of accidentally bumping into a Booker Prize winner.

Two things have opened my eyes to this gap. Firstly, I very strongly considered studying Popular Literature at Trinity College Dublin. The course (which, from what I saw of it, I enthusiastically recommend) covers everything from horror to erotica (which was the case before Fifty Shades of Grey), but with the puzzling caveat that if it's something you could study in an English degree, it's probably not an option.

Secondly, my exposure to the publishing industry has backed up this division. Without leaking any details, it's striking that, even before a book is acquired, there is a keen focus on working out who it's to be targeted at. This obviously makes a great deal of sense, but it did surprise me that on more than one occasion concerns have been raised that a book will struggle because it is neither a genre book nor a literary book, but rather a blend of both. The consensus (which, I would stress, I see no reason to doubt) is that the readers of these books have very different tastes, indeed to the point they are not compatible.

Now, genre distinctions make a great deal of sense most of the time. Some readers like romances, while some readers like crime novels - we have long-established conventions in areas like titles and cover designs that enable you to quickly tell which of these categories any single book falls into. Equally, there is almost certainly a sub-genre of 'romantic crime' (or at least there will be, once the current trend for publishing fan fiction expands to include Holmes/Watson slash fiction), and this can again be compartmentalized. You might think it would be nice if we all branched out a little more, but we don't seem to want to, and that's what it is.

My problem is more with the concept of literary fiction as a distinct genre in it's own right, and the implication that if something is 'crime' (or romance, or horror...) it by definition isn't literary. This kind of distinction might look loosely appropriate from a distance, but up close it is both illogical and counter-productive.

To start with, literary books throughout history obviously do have genres. We need only look to Shakespeare, who wrote comedies, histories and tragedies. Even if we follow more recent genre distinctions the same point is true: Hilary Mantel's novels are indisputably historical fiction; Toni Morrison's Beloved is a family saga (with horror elements). The supposed distinction doesn't work.

But the bigger problem is the implication that goes with this mistaken assumption. A typical argument would be that genre fiction is about people doing, and literary fiction is about people being. Genre fiction, you could argue, is all about following through a particular situation, obeying convention and producing a satisfactory conclusion. Everything is predictable, even (in the case of spy thrillers, for example) the necessity of it being unpredictable. It is left to literary fiction, then, to explore big questions. Most readers aren't interested, of course, they just want their weekly dose of angsty romance, masterful sleuthing or kinky sex.

The problem is that all of the best bits of literature lie in the gaps between these two categories. It's all well and good that we have deep-but-inpenetrable literary fiction furthering the minds of the pretentious elite, and that the vast majority of us are reading happily away. But wouldn't it be better if our best, most interesting writers were targeting the mass market - able to lure in thriller readers with a gripping plot that also had time to reflect on the infinite complexity of human life?

This, of course, is what many great writers do - just this week we reviewed Justin Cronin's The Twelve, which is both indisputably apocalyptic sci-fi horror, but simultaneously in many senses a literary book in its grasp of character. But this might well be more true if the book industry desegmentalised itself a touch, which of course is contingent on readers being willing to push themselves from time to time, rather than reaching for the book with the most similar cover to their last read.

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Review: The Twelve by Justin Cronin

The Passage, the book which precedes The Twelve, had more fanfare attached to its release than any non-JK Rowling book I've seen. Waterstones not only had huge piles of it at the front of their shop in Reading, they also produced a free booklet including the opening chapter and heaps of positive reviews. I was persuaded to purchase it, and loved the book so much it leaped to the top of my all-time favourites list.  Needless to say, I was keenly anticipating the sequel.

Of course, sequels have a tendency to struggle, not least when they are the second book in a planned trilogy, as is the case here. The Passage ultimately ends with the death of Babcock, the first of the Twelve - my worry here was that this follow-up could only repeat the same story as its predecessor over and over and over, or would have to sacrifice the sense of difficulty which made that first triumph so sweet. Refreshingly, Cronin takes the decision to go in a very different direction - I believe I read somewhere that Cronin compared the first novel to a travel book, and the second to a spy thriller, and the distinction in tone is clear.

That being said, the opening takes us right back to The Passage, in more ways than one. The first chapter is a godsend to those who haven't re-read the former novel in a while, as it recounts the events to date in a quasi-biblical fashion. This tantalising hint at the far-future is one of many tantalising strands you hope will be explained by the end of the series. From here we plunge back into 'Year Zero', when the 'virals' are rampaging across America. The Passage made a habit of investing in characters and then abandoning them - here we abandon our entire cast to pick up a whole new cast, although connections slowly become apparent. The sense of fear builds slowly, but the cumulative effect is still chilling.

Saturday, 20 October 2012

The Bookshelf is being reassembled...

Apologies the recent lack of posts here at The Bookshelf.  Tim is beginning a Masters Degree, while I (Joel) has just started a new job working for Quercus, the UK publisher - part of the excitement of moving to the big city is coping without internet while the good people of Tesco Broadband fight the good fight to set it up.

To give you a flavour of what you can look forward to when we're back in business, there's the promised analysis of the politics of JK Rowling's The Casual Vacancy (check out our review here).  A lot of attention has focused on the novel's perceived left-wing politics, which so displeased the Daily Mail, but I'm inclined to think it's actually a lot more complicated than that - check back in a week or three for more.

We're also very excited about the upcoming release of The Twelve, by Justin Cronin.  The novel is the second in an anticipated trilogy, which began with The Passage - a wonderful book which fused apocalyptic vampires with literary fiction.  Look out for a review of The Passage, as well as Cronin's award-winning earlier novel The Summer Guest, which might well be the best book I've read this year.  Of course, once The Twelve is released it'll be read and reviewed as quickly as professional life makes possible.

Finally, while the professional world is hampering my reading time, it's also giving me more of an insight into the world of publishing. I won't be leaking any trade secrets, but hopefully I'll be able to share some interesting news about what's going on in the book world.

Happy October!

Sunday, 30 September 2012

Review: The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling

I think it's fair to say a lot of people came to The Casual Vacancy determined to hate it.  Some people were going to attack it for not being Booker Prize worthy.  Others were going to loathe it for not being Harry Potter.  Many, judging by Amazon reviews, were more interested in the Kindle price than the book itself.  Motivated partly by these naysayers, and partly by my love of her earlier work, I would admit to being equally stubborn in my determination to love the book.  I wasn't disappointed.

Make no mistake, The Casual Vacancy is a strange book - at once very contemporary and deeply old-fashioned.  Only a few weeks ago I was celebrating the long-and-slow virtues of Anna Karenina, written at a time when novelists were unafraid of meandering merrily along with a big cast of characters and a slow-burning plot.  Rowling's new book is in that mould.

Thursday, 27 September 2012

Review: The Lighthouse by Alison Moore

At the risk of being flippant (and, more certainly, the danger of releasing spoilers!), my initial forays into this years Booker Prize shortlist has suggested there's a very simple formula for obtaining a nomination - write a depressing novel about depressed Brits holidaying in Europe, have it published by a small publisher, and finish it off with a surprising death.  Success is assured!

Joking aside though, where The Lighthouse clearly outdoes Swimming Home (which for all its potential I can't say I enjoyed) is in creating a pair of protagonists with whom we can feel great pity.  Whereas Levy's prose style in Swimming Home swerved off towards obscurity, Moore uses a calculatedly blunt style to reflect the emotional stuntedness of the book's central character Futh - a newly single middle-aged man hiking in Germany, whose tragic back story emerges bit by bit as the novel goes on.

At times, Futh's character seems almost overdetermined.  Not only does he experience Oedipal desires for his long-departed mother (he eventually, and wisely, stops telling his long-term partner and his readers the ways in which she reminds him of his mother), he also obsessively remembers his father's sexual encounters which he was forced to watch as a boy, leading to a cloying physicality in the books opening chapters across both storylines - one highlight (or lowlight) being the memorable 'He bites into his egg and she hears it being wetly masticated in his mouth'.  Charming.

Saturday, 22 September 2012

Review: The Good, The Bad and the The Multiplex by Mark Kermode

[Photo Credit: Jorge Royan]

If you hadn't ever listened to Mark Kermode's radio reviews, you would be able to predict the tone of his latest book by its subtitle: 'what's wrong with modern movies?'.  The magic of the man is that what might simply be a Grumpy Old Man rant (and it certainly is that) manages to remain wonderfully entertaining.

Kermode (or 'The Good Doctor', as he is often called on his Radio 5Live show) ostensibly turns his attention to a different topic in each chapter: multiplex cinemas, the role of the critic, the British film industry, 3D movies, and so on.  In actual fact this only provides a sliver of fixed ground from which he can roam freely, spinning off anecdotes and name-dropping movies, directors and actors at a quite mind-boggling rate.  Suffice to say in chapter one, which purports to be a story about a trip to a multiplex to watch a Zac Efron movie (we like Zac Efron, we do not like multiplexes), it takes 28 pages of diversionary activity (and, to be fair, descriptions of queuing) before we even make it to the cinema screen.

Thursday, 20 September 2012

Forgotten Bestsellers: Where are they now?

Today I stumbled across a fascinating website, or rather, section of a website.  It lists the top 10 bestselling books in the USA for each year from 1900 to 2005, based on the Publishers Weekly figures.  Look at it here!  In the absence of a similar list for the UK (tell us in the comments if one exists), I found it so interesting to scan through history at these former chart toppers.

Obviously it's fascinating to skim through and see big names appear and disappear.  The Hound of the Baskervilles makes the top 10 in 1902, Joseph Conrad rather surprisingly only cracks the top 10 with The Arrow of Gold in 1919, Gone with the Wind achieves two consecutive years at the top in 1936 and 1937, in 1983 not one book managed to sell a novelisation of Star Wars' Return of the Jedi by an American "medical specialist" named James Kahn.  I was probably most surprised to see Winston Churchill topping the charts in 1901 with The Crisis; unfortunately a little research revealed this to be a different Winston than our celebrated bald prime minister.

Saturday, 15 September 2012

Review: Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (book)

It took longer than hoped, but I've finally finished Anna Karenina.  Two weeks and 806 pages of very small text later, I'm left wondering how to describe this wonderful wonderful book.

As a caveat, as already discussed, I'm a fan of sprawling Victorian-era novels.  If you aren't, then don't even try to begin Anna Karenina - it's got all the hallmarks of the genre: a character list that spans several pages (all with confusing similar and often genderless Russian names), large passages of earnest moral debate, still larger passages where the author apparently forgets the plot.  If you can cope with all of that, you will love it.

Sunday, 9 September 2012

Serials: a whole new world of episodic possibility

As the Guardian reported this week, Amazon are releasing a new range of serialised books - spend $1.99 on the first installment, and you get the rest of the story free as it is sequentially released.

Of course, this isn't the most original of innovations.  Two of the titles with which Amazon are launching the range are Pickwick Papers and Oliver Twist, which were initially released some 160 years ago in serialised form, along with many other Victorian novels.  It is also not true to say the practice has died out in the meantime, as anyone who tunes into Eastenders or Casualty (or indeed, any episodic television series) can attest to.

But what is really exciting to me about this announcement though is it's obvious relation to new technology.  The announcement was made alongside the release of the new Kindle Fire, which is more akin to an iPad than the first generation Kindle, and serialisation perfectly suits the new digital age - you can download and read a bitesize chunk, accessing more if you so choose, with neither reader nor publisher having to worry about the hassle of multiple printed documents.

Monday, 3 September 2012

Review: Swimming Home by Deborah Levy

You don't need to be a cultural neanderthal to view with a little trepidation any contemporary novel which not only dares to have an introduction, but dares to have an introduction which boasts the author's fiction  is 'less concerned about the stories it narrated than about the interzone...it set up in which desire and speculation, fantasy and symbols circulated'.  This is what you get, I surmised, for daring to try and read books from the Man Booker longlist.

You could forgive the pretension, but to be fair on Levy this introduction actually does her down - Swimming Home has a very interesting story, albeit one which the consciously obscuring style does it's best to conceal.  Joe and Isabel Jacobs are holidaying with their daughter Nina and their supposed friends Mitchell and Laura.  Their (non-existent) holiday bliss is interrupted by the appearance in their swimming pool of a mysterious teenage botanist, Kitty Finch, who is desperate for Joe (a poet) to read something she's written.

Ironically, for a novel centred around a holiday swimming pool, this couldn't be further from supplanting Fifty Shades of Grey (or should we now say Monday to Friday Man?) from the 'read by the pool' list.  Kitty might rise out of the swimming pool, but lazy readers risk drowning in the promised 'interzone' - at times passages demand instant re-reading just for the reader to keep up.  

Friday, 31 August 2012

Review: The Guard by Peter Terrin

Have you ever heard of the European Union Prize for Literature?  Oxymoronic as it sounds, this award actually exists, and in 2010 it was won (in its prestigious Belgian division) by Peter Terrin's De Bewaker.  This week the book has finally been released in English, titled The Guard, and I was at the front of the (ebook) queue to find out what all the fuss was about.

Terrin's novel tells the story of Michel, a guard in the basement of a luxury block of flats, in a very probably dystopian future.  I say 'very probably dystopian' because poor Michel finds himself confined to the aforementioned basement, guarding the building (with the assistance of fellow-guard Harry) even when almost all of the residents have mysteriously abandoned the building.

The premise of the book is what initially caught my eye.  It resembles a thought experiment - what would you do if you were trapped in a basement with one other person, with no idea if the rest of the world was existing as normal, or indeed even existing?  As the novel begins to unfold, and it becomes clearer that something is very wrong in the outside world, Terrin's novel clearly begins to satirise the more fundamental aspects of religious faith - even when all evidence points to the two guards being abandoned, Harry insists that they are being tested by an all-powerful Organisation which wants the best for them, and will reward them for their diligence.  All very interesting.

Thursday, 30 August 2012

Anna Karenina: the joy of long books

In a possibly ill-advised move, I decided yesterday that I wanted to read Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina before the new film adaptation (starring Keira Knightley and Jude Law; trailer below).  Armed with a disgracefully cheap Wordsworth Classics copy, I quickly got to work on its 806 pages.  Unfortunately, it quickly emerged that (presumably to cut costs) the publisher had used the smallest font possible.  The nine days until the film release suddenly don't seem so long.

Now, I'm no stranger to long books.  With an English degree behind me I've tucked away 20 Victorian novels in a term, as well as chewing through James Joyce's Ulysses and Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene (the longest poem in English, I believe).  I only drew the line at Clarissa by Samuel Richardson, which comes in at a smidgeon under a million words - in my defence I had to write about the almost-as-long Tom Jones and the not insubstantial Pamela in the same week, and I ended up writing an essay on why Clarissa's length made it impossible to study.  But I digress.  (Much like Tolstoy.)

Monday, 27 August 2012

Review: Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson

I would guess I am quite rare in approaching Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? without having read Jeanette Winterson's first and most famous novel, Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, to which this new memoir is (the blurb tells us) a 'silent twin'.

Clearly, and justifiably, Winterson assumes some knowledge with that earlier novel, which narrates the childhood of an adopted girl named Jeanette, growing up as a lesbian in a strictly Christian household in northern England.  That this memoir could be summarised in precisely the same words indicates how autobiographical that novel was, although as Winterson addresses in the first chapter of Happy, that Oranges contained such details does not mean it was not fictional. Now, 25 years later, Winterson revisits the same story, this time in the guise of a memoir which admits 'Part fact part fiction is what life is'.

Sunday, 26 August 2012

Best Book Review Sites

(by Claire Davis)

E-readers offer many conveniences when shopping for books online. One of the things that they cannot replicate, however, is that of book-browsing. You all know that feeling: entering a shop lined with novels, wandering between its aisles and touching the shiny new covers. You stop on occasion, pulling a chosen one down from the shelf, flicking through its pages and reading the blurb. After a pleasant perusal, you leave the shop clutching a promising new novel under your arm, or perhaps with a list of your next ten reads.

So in a digital world where book-browsing is less feasible, how do we know which book is our next page-turner? The answer, of course, is to read online reviews (as Joel blogged about last week!). Here are the top 5 book review sites that  The Bookshelf puts its faith in, so that the next time you’re lost in book-browsing cyberspace, you know where to turn before hitting that buy button.

Saturday, 25 August 2012

Joyce, Yeats, and the impact of Literature on Dublin

While in Dublin last week, I discovered the city is currently the UNESCO City of Literature.  Normally I have little time for such accolades; (London)derry in Northern Ireland will imminently become the EU City of Culture, and even as a fan of Northern Irish literature that seems an awful stretch.  Yet walking around the Irish capital, it is clear that Dublin has a remarkable literary heritage for a relatively small European capital.

The range of literary links is exhaustive.  The Chester Beatty Library contains an enormous collection of ancient manuscripts, predominantly from the Middle and Far East.  Trinity College holds the magnificant Book of Kells (pictured).  Jonathan Swift was Dean of the bizarre Gothic structure of St Patrick's Cathedral, while the 19th Century saw the births of Charles Maturin, Sheridan Le Fanu, Bram Stoker and Oscar Wilde, to name but a few.

Yet it was the early decades of the twentieth century which produced the two most famous Dublin figures: James Joyce and WB Yeats.  Joyce's Ulysses is widely regarded as the greatest novel of the twentieth century, Yeats won a Nobel Prize, and along the way Ireland followed the United States of America in becoming the second ex-colonial nation, achieving independence in 1922.  Both men were obviously influenced by these monumental events, but the difference between their responses highlights two very different ideas of literature.

Review: Pulphead by John Jeremiah Sullivan

(via mrbsemporium.com)

I love America.

I think John Jeremiah Sullivan does too.

While I, like most people, know very little about love, I am fairly sure it isn't simple. That it's made up of thousands of varieties and eccentricities and a load of stuff that doesn't make a lot of sense.

It is this kind of love that Sullivan applies to his country in this collection of journalistic essays. He writes about: reality TV, animal attacks, Michael Jackson, the Tea Party, Indian cave painting, 19th century naturalists, Christian rock festivals, Axl Rose, One Tree Hill, Hurricane Katrina, the Blues, Disney Land, Bunny Wailer (of Bob Marley & the Wailers fame), comas, cranky old men.

His articles' style varies quite a bit too. At his best, his very very best, as good as it gets for anyone writing this sort of thing, he functions a bit like Louis Theroux. Usually he is a little more meditative, a little more investigative, a little more autobiographical.

Monday, 20 August 2012

On Batman & Dickens

WARNING! major plot spoilers for The Dark Knight Rises and A Tale of Two Cities.

(via wikipedia)
The most recent Batman film, The Dark Knight Rises, was the big event of the summer before the Olympics came along, dancing and attention-hogging. But, a few scant weeks ago, hard as it is to imagine that simpler time, Christopher Nolan's third man-in-cape movie was generating serious press attention.

Reading through some of the reviews, a central issue of contention seemed to be whether a superhero blockbuster could count as serious art. Some favourable critics praised the film for this very achievement – although usually with the caveat that it transcended its comic-book origins, rather than admitting Batman into the pantheon of great characters with Odysseus and Hamlet and those guys from The Godfather. The few dissenting critics usually accused the film of pretension, of over-reaching its generic shortcomings, and toppling embarrassingly. Chris Tookey, the Daily Mail's ever ill-judged critic, hammered this point home, somehow managing to accuse the film of failing to be serious in the serious art sense and simultaneously being too serious and not enough fun.

It is perhaps in defence of the serious, artistic nature of his film that Nolan has revealed the influence of Charles Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities on The Dark Knight Rises. As a staunch lover of Dickens, it was this possible precursor of the film that was at the forefront of my mind as I entered the cinema.

Thursday, 16 August 2012

Judging a Book by its Cover : Kafka's The Trial

(by Rob Lee)

We all know the old adage, and hopefully apply it to things outside of the literary world, but what if, we invert its meaning and take it literally?

How well does a cover seek to draw in a new reader? How well does it summarise the premise and tone? How convincingly does it conjure up the context or personality of the time it was written, and how well does it represent the character of the author?

Points will be given from one to five based on these kinds of concerns, along with a little sprinkling of personal opinion and humour of course. Alright, let’s do this!

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Review: Bed of Nails by Antonin Varenne (original title: Fakirs; translated by Sian Reynolds)

As an utter novice to the world of French crime fiction, I had very few preconceptions as I began Bed of Nails, the debut novel of French author Antonin Varenne (originally titled Fakirs).  It was a very pleasant surprise, then, to find a crime thriller that defied genre expectations, although this does come with a dark cost.

The novel begins with two apparently unrelated plotlines.  Guerin, a Parisian detective, is investigating what he believes to be suspicious circumstances relating to a string of suicides, all the while struggling with (not unfounded) accusations from colleagues that these links exist only in his troubled mind.  Meanwhile John Nichols, an American hippy with an academic past, is called to Paris to identify the body of Alan Mustgrave, who died during his own S&M routine.  Inevitably the two men collide, as Guerin turns his attention to Mustgrave’s suspicious demise.

The novel, translated by Sian Reynolds, is brisk and well written, making up in detail what it lacks in humour.  There are plenty of fascinating characters here, not least the two leads, but also an ex-con Parisian park keeper and an apparently dim-witted junior officer.  Varenne doesn’t worry too hard about making these figures likeable, but he does make them morbidly believeable.

Monday, 13 August 2012

The Future of Islam (1934)

In part two of our series on literature and the Middle East, we look at one ignored scholar's predictions for Islam's future. Read part one here.

One of life's great pleasures can be found in a second-hand bookshop. The joy of second-hand shopping is in its eclecticism and unpredictability. When applied to books, the results can be fascinating or ecstatic, or, sadly, terribly tedious. While famous books should be loved and appreciated, forgotten books can be filled with gems, that, if more modest than Dickensian diamonds, can cast the light on the wall in the most interesting ways.

Blickling Hall: surprisingly good bookshop. (via gogobot.com)
All this is by way of saying that, last summer, on a family outing to a stately home in Norfolk, a ramshackle Elizabethan place with lots of chimneys, if I recall, I discovered such a modest gem in a modest second-hand bookshop. (My enthusiasm had already been raised by the examination of the home's excellent and neglected library, which contained, amongst other things, a beautiful edition of Alexander Pope's poems from the eighteenth century, the leaves still uncut.) Perusing the section labelled religion, I found a battered pocket volume entitled An Outline of Islâm by a man called C.R. North (M.A., Handsworth College, Birmingham). published by the Epworth Press in London in 1934. Both author and publisher are so obscure that all I can find of them in Google is listings by rare books dealers.

I sensed that Mr North's work could be a minor but interesting footnote to my abiding interest in Orientalism. At the very least, I reasoned, there would be some outrageous examples of Imperial British pomposity and ignorance.

Sunday, 12 August 2012

Review: The City's Son by Tom Pollock

Released last week, in the middle of the Olympic Games which have drawn global attention to London, it is fitting that the building sites and back streets of East London form the canvas on which Tom Pollock paints this manic vision of apocalyptic fantasy warfare.

Pollock perhaps missed a trick by not including the Olympic Park, but apart from that his brilliant imagination presents a distorted reflection of all aspects of London – duelling snake-like trains, graffiti-coated tunnels, skyscraper thrones and drunken Russian tramps.  In amongst this, though, it is surprisingly the human (or, at least, anthropomorphic) characters which shine through.

Make no mistake; the urban fantasyscape that Pollock creates is breathtaking.  The only reason not to describe the novel as cinematic is a doubt that film technology could keep up: this is an example of the descriptive power the written word still keeps, even in the Avatar-era.

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

What's the point of a book review?

It might, after more than a month of reviewing books, be an odd time to question the purpose of a book review.  Hopefully you’ll have read some of our existing efforts, and with any luck you’ll think we’ve understood our task relatively successfully, so why stop to worry about it now?

Well, to start with it seems there are two very distinct audiences for a book review, and they serve two very different purposes.  Sometimes a review will be read by someone who is wondering whether or not they should read a book (or watch a film, or listen to an album…), and sometimes they will find a reader who has already read the work in question and wants to compare their experiences with someone new.  Of course, there are also those who read book reviews in a desperate attempt to write a semi-informed essay on a book they haven’t read, but it’s hard to legislate for them.

Monday, 6 August 2012

Review: Field Grey by Philip Kerr

Having not read a thriller for a while, I was pleasantly surprised by Philip Kerr’s 2010 cold war tale, Field Grey.  The latest in the Bernie Gunther series, the novel’s meandering narrative sees Bernie dragged back to Germany as a pawn in a CIA plot to capture a leading Stasi agent, Erich Mielke.

The slow-burning plot, casting a cynical eye over Americans, Russians, Frenchmen and Germans alike, is perhaps not the novel’s strength.  Told largely in flashback as Bernie recounts his story to various captors, the first 450 pages cover a lot of ground without ever catching fire.

It is thus fortunate that the first-person persona Kerr creates in Gunther is so wonderful.  Bernie Gunther veers from a tortured soul to a hyper-self-conscious James Bond, and ensures that even the most pedestrian passages of plot flow smoothly.  The only thing Bernie loves more than beautiful women is a one-liner, and obviously both simultaneously is ideal: “You aren’t looking for a policeman.  You’re looking for a man who’s eager to please and looking for advancement in the communist party... The last time I was looking for advancement in a party a pretty girl slapped my face.”

Sunday, 5 August 2012

Reading Books & the Arab Spring

In part one of our series on literature and the Middle East, we examine some of the political implications of the ways we read.

T.E. Lawrence hanging out with a camel
(via ivebeenreadinglately.blogspot.co.uk)
T.E. Lawrence, better know as Lawrence of Arabia, was a badass. This much is evident from any brief description of his achievements in the desert: uniting the Bedu tribes; devising guerilla warfare; overcoming a far larger Turkish army; crossing the Sinai Desert alone; getting into Magdalen College, Oxford (unlike yours truly).

Lawrence is one of those rare figures who seems to stand apart from the rest of their culture, figures who can influence the ebb and flow of history, rather than be merely buffeted to and fro like flotsam. He manages to resist not just the events around him, but the attitudes. The most remarkable thing about T.E. Lawrence was that, at the height of British Imperialism (if only in terms of landmass), at a time of Western political and cultural hegemony, of untrammelled racism and chauvinism towards all those who were not Anglo-Saxon, he managed to not be an Orientalist.

Orientalism is a complicated concept, and needs a brief pause of explanation. The Influential critic Edward Said devoted a whole book to it; I shall try to cram it into a few paragraphs. Roughly speaking, the Orientalist is the Westerner who takes an exceptional interest in the Orient – defined as 'not West', but usually referring to either East Asian or Middle Eastern cultures. Said argues that the interest of the Orientalist will always be somewhat chauvinistic, based on caricature and generalisation, on definitions of other cultures not in their own terms, but in opposition to the culture of the Orientalist himself. He goes further, and argues for a political dimension to Orientalism, with the Orientalist, in Said's conception, ideologically furthering the doctrines of Western Imperialism by justifying the subjugation and rule of Orientals by Occidentals.

Sinai Desert (from here)
Said's position is inflammatory, and not without its critics. Examples can be produced of various Orientalists resistant to the biases and epistemological pitfalls Said identifies. Lawrence is my favourite of these. His shimmering memoir of his desert-war years, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, demonstrates a profound respect for Bedu culture as a whole and the individual tribesman with which he interacts, and a profound shame for Imperial Britain's treatment of the Arabs.

This Western mistreatment of the Arab peoples is the subject (or one of the subjects) of James Barr's recent history of Anglo-French relations in the Middle East, A Line in the Sand. During the First World War, the British, in part inspired and assisted by T.E. Lawrence, convinced the Arabic populations of what are now Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Israel, Lebanon, Iraq and Syria to fight against the Turks. The Middle East was, at that time, under the rule of the decaying Ottoman Turkish Empire, and the bait Britain offered to the Arabs, as price for their military assistance, was independence and nationhood.

James Barr's A Line in the Sand, showing the division of the Middle East (via handmademaps.com)

As Barr details, these promises were, unsurprisingly, broken. After the war, the British and the French divided the Middle East between themselves, giving Lebanon and Syria to the French and Iraq, Jordan and Israel to the British. Arab concerns were ignored. The attitudes that allowed for such a betrayal were Orientalist in the most extreme and obscene way. Arabs were not capable of self-governance, the British thought. It is our right to govern Syria, the French argued. The great powers of the West forged an agreement because both prioritised pleasing the other above pleasing the Arabs. When the war was over, the Arabs were dispensable as allies.

The motivation for the betrayal that Barr does not explicitly identify is even more sad. The reason the French and the British valued one another's allegiance so much in 1919 is that, following the Treaty of Versailles, senior government figures on both sides of the Channel considered another war with Germany an inevitability. The harshness of the terms imposed by the Allies on Germany, they feared, necessitated further conflict. Arabian self-determination was the first of many casualties of such a petty and vindictive Treaty.

It is perhaps ironic that similar harsh peace terms were offered to Turkey – terms so harsh that they instigated nationalist revolution, and created the kind of secular, self-governed state the Versailles terms precluded in the former Ottoman Empire.

The various imperial machinations of the 1920s and 30s do not make for pleasant reading, and Barr does not flinch from brutal honesty about the pettiness, self-interest and callousness of imperial officials. It is clear that Barr disapproves of how his own nation had behaved. And yet his history retains vestiges of the same kind of Orientalism that allowed for such behaviour in the first place.

The most obvious way in which Barr demonstrates his Orientalism is in his marginalising of Arab influence. It may seem unfair to criticise a history of British and French foreign policy for focussing too much on the British and French, but in this case it is reasonable. There is no sense of the effects of these policies on Arabs, and only a very limited sense of Arab agency in resisting or abetting European policy. The effect is to implicitly justify the cold pragmatism of European policy, to condemn the results and motivations, but not to condemn a policy of regional influence itself. It is the same attitude that condones the support of the Saudi or Mubarak regimes to enhance stability and protect European oil concerns.

Classic Orientalism:
Jean-Léon GérômePool in a Harem, c. 1876 (via wikipedia)
Barr's elision of Arab action is thrown more starkly into contrast in the later parts of the book, which deal with Zionist terrorism against the British in Palestine. He emphasises, as he does in earlier sections about Arab terrorism and uprising in French-controlled Syria, the role of Western backers in providing arms, money and intelligence. But he also emphasises the role of Zionists in attracting this support, and describes their degree of activity and success in far more detail than that of equivalent Arab movements. One comes away with the idea that Israel was won by the hard work, cunning and determination of the (mostly European) Jewish community, while Palestine was lost by the disorganisation and ultimate passivity of the Arab population. Said would note, with a disapproving but unsurprised shake of the head, that passivity was one of the most frequent of Orientalist stereotypes.

There are mitigating factors in Barr's differing treatments of Arab and Jewish resistances. For one thing, Jewish terrorism did actually produce its desired goal. To analyse in such a post hoc manner is not especially desirable. It assumes that all other conditions remained the same for this one factor to have determined the outcome, and it assumes, to an extent, that the final outcome was inevitable. My criticism, however, is more of Barr's writing than of his argument, though: the differences in descriptive treatment between the two groups is not excusable, even if a difference in argumentative force is.

The other reason for Barr's bias, perhaps, is that he does not speak Arabic. I cannot say this with certainty, but the bibliography provided in his book shows a very limited reading of Arab primary sources and of Arab scholars. Many Jewish sources were written by European immigrants, and written in French or German, and are therefore more accessible to the European scholar. Linguistic barriers, Said would wearily note, often result in deficient Orientalist scholarship, in the inability of Western scholars to fully understand Arab culture. (It should be pointed out that Said excludes a volume of influential European Oriental scholarship – including German, Austrian, Dutch and Italian work – from his own argument due to a lack of linguistic proficiency in those areas: it seems that language barriers apply in all cultural exchanges.)

Rebels have fashion sense too (via funcorner.eu
The worry is that, while these may be mitigating factors in the skew of Barr's analysis, the central cause is somewhat more deep-rooted and pernicious than these scholarly weeds. There has not been a great development – in popular circles at least – in attitudes towards the Middle East. Orientalism continues to pervade, even if it has been modified. For many, the Middle East remains an Arabian Nights fantasia of camels and deserts and sultans and gemstones. Or, at least, they wish it were so, and acknowledge, with what I'm sure they'd dress as admirable pragmatism, that the cultural gems of Arabic culture are being eroded by pernicious, unifying forces. Islamism, perhaps. Or the Arab Spring. Or petro-dollars.

I'm often alarmed myself at how easily I slip into these modern stereotypes. Alarmed at how casually I have referred to the Middle East as an entity of relatively uniform characteristics, resting on the safe assumption that most anyone reading this will know sort of what I mean. I often find it a shock to see footage of the Arab Spring, to see young people in jeans and hoodies and iPhones, in apartment blocks that could be in Spain or Italy. Somehow it surprises me that a Syrian could own a smartphone, and yet I am completely unsurprised that the Syrian government own tanks. It seems that modern life only applies in some parts of my Middle East.

Tahrir Square (from wmf.org.eg)
Even with a heightened level of self-consciousness, the best description I can offer of the existence of the average Egyptian, say, is very limited. I'm fairly sure most people aren't Islamic Fundamentalists, whatever that means. I'm fairly sure they worry about bills and unemployment and crime just like everyone else does. They probably think about getting laid a lot. They probably don't own camels. I know for a fact that it isn't sweltering desert heat all the time. (But when I imagine the scenes in Tahrir Square, it's always approaching 45oC.) I know Egypt are surprisingly good at football.

What is perhaps even more frightening is that those who do claim to be in the know don't seem to make things clearer. Take recent news coverage of the Egyptian elections. Mohamed Morsi (let's not go into transliteration issues), I am assured, is an Islamist of some sort. I don't really know what this means. As this article on the excellent blog The Arabist points out, most of these labels are nebulous. Pinning down what politicians actually believe is always a tricky business, but the whole process is made harder by obfuscating words and the lack of nuance they create.

Mohamed Morsi, Egypt's current
president (via saharareporters.com)
Which brings us back to language. Thinking about the words we apply to things is one of the ways in which language – and, by extend, literature – can become politically significant. This is one of the advantages to be gained by approaching non-literary works like Barr's from a literary perspective. It can be attitudinally revealing. It can be somewhat dispiriting. But it can remind us, as we should often be reminded, to re-evaluate our own attitudes, and our own words. Above all, it should remind us that words are not enough, that the entirety of existence cannot be captured on the page. Barr tries heroically to represent thirty-five years of Middle Eastern history, but fails to represent the people who actually live in the Middle East; the West tries to represent the vast and varied change in the Middle East, and, again, leaves out so much that is essential, and leaves us with tunnel-vision.

Thursday, 2 August 2012

William Shakespeare: Where to start

If you're British, you literally cannot have legally avoided William Shakespeare.  His work is plastered all over the national English curriculum almost as comprehensively as Nazi Germany is for history, meaning every British teen will have studied at least two of his plays.

In spite of this (or, more likely, because of it) many people view Shakespeare with bafflement, or even loathing.  Why, you might ask, should we still care about a man who died 400 years ago?  The argument that he is simply wonderful doesn't really pull much weight if (to borrow a brilliant Tim Vine joke) your own experience of Macbeth was only once-in-a-lifetime in the sense that you don't ever want to do it again.

Fear not!  Following the success of our Dickens guide last month, we've taken a look at how to begin Shakespeare - not for an exam, but to actually try and see what all the fuss is about...

Friday, 27 July 2012

If great authors wrote the Olympic Opening Ceremony...

Image: London Evening Standard
Tonight's Olympic opening ceremony is supposedly based on Shakespeare's The Tempest - the title is Isle of Wonder and Kenneth Branagh is rumoured to reading Caliban's 'Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises' speech.  This is all well and good, but we were wondering what might have happened if the show had been produced by some Literary Greats from throughout history...

Shakespeare seems the obvious place to start.  The Tempest is ok, but everyone knows that the tragedies are Shakespeare's greatest work, while the histories are all about the bizarre squabbles of the Royal Family.  Of the predicted one billion global watchers, who wouldn't be thrilled in this Diamond Jubilee year to see a Hamlet/Othello/Romeo and Juliet Royal mash-up, featuring Kate and William as star-crossed lovers, with Mohammed Al-Fayed as Iago convincing William that Prince Philip killed his mother?

Sunday, 22 July 2012

The e-books of the future

When will e-books become more than turning fake pages of Shakespeare?

E-books are increasingly taken for granted as a normal part of the reading landscape.  But what will happen when publishers and authors begin to take full advantage of the technology?

One of the consistently emphasised strengths of the Kindle is that it ‘reads like paper’; the latest model even boasts ‘10% faster page turns’.  Obviously other features differentiate the newer technology (and justify its price tag), but it’s clear that a fundamental part of its appeal is that it closely replicates the reading experience of a physical book.  This makes sense from a marketing perspective – one of the most common objections to purchasing an e-reader is the loss of the ‘feel’ of a nice new paperback.

On the other hand though, this striving for similarity might just be missing the point, almost as if the only conceivable use for television was to add images to existing radio shows.  Sci-fi author David Gerrold used a very similar analogy last year, predicting “just as movies, radio, and television evolved into new forms over time, the ebook will also become something more than just a way to read books.  It will become its own specific and unique way of creating and sharing experience.”

Saturday, 21 July 2012

Review: The Descendants by Kaui Hart Hemmings

Rarely has any novel made me laugh and cry as promiscuously as Kaui Hart Hemmings’s 2008 debut novel, The Descendants.

The subject matter is unlikely fuel for comedy.  Matt King is a workaholic lawyer, attempting to come to terms with the fact that his wife Joanie is in a terminal coma, leaving him with two daughters.  As if this wasn’t enough, we soon discover that Joanie was having an affair, and also that Matt is soon to determine the sale of his family’s ancestral property, making millionaires out of himself and his cousins.

In this dark territory, Hemmings creates in Matt a wonderfully human narrator, able to comprehend both the tragedy and the farce in this eminently believable narrative.  The novel is most effective when Matt is most impotent; attempting to explain to a linguistically challenged woman why it is inappropriate to sell bikini photos of his underage daughter in a hospital shop; listening in bewilderment while role-playing his comatose wife while his still younger daughter tells a tall tale about sea urchins and self-harm.  This Hawaii is subverts the stereotypes, and even younger readers will appreciate the detachment with which its narrator views its inhabitants.

Hookline: an exciting new way to get published?

(by Claire Davis)

We all know that there are hundreds of unpublished writers out there, desperately waiting for their manuscripts to be read by some top dog editor could make or break their careers (if he even gets around to reading it). We also all take for granted that when browsing in a bookshop we’re sure to find something we might want to read, and if not, we can simply choose something from the bestseller shelf. That shelf full of the lucky ones, the books that made it, the authors who managed to get noticed in the swirling sea of other fish.

But what if there is a book, a gap in the market, something new and original that you personally would love to see published, which never makes it through? Enter Hookline Books.

A small and unique publishing company, Hookline Books runs a novel competition specifically for unpublished graduates from MA writing courses. Its principles: to give debut writers a fighting chance of being read and published, and to give the readers a real choice in the process.

Monday, 16 July 2012

Review: White Noise by Don DeLillo

Don DeLillo: could be more funny? (from nndb.com)

Don DeLillo tries hard to be funny. He is sometimes successful, I suppose. But the humour he offers is of a stodgy, academic, over-thought kind: the humour of an author or a professor's midlife crisis. Such is the tone of White Noise, so overpowered with this kind of humour that it comes across grey and brown and flat. Sometimes the novel sparkles with the absurd: an “airborne toxic event”, bizarre conversations with doctors, a surreal and ineffective shootout that recalls Humbert's assassination of Quilty in Lolita. But all are dampened, devoid of joy.

Lolita is a good point of comparison. Like in Nabokov's novel, the first person narrator of White Noise dominates the text with his voice. Unlike in Lolita, however, there are few advantages to be gained. Jack Gladney's voice's overwhelming effect is 
most problematic when it is applied to the dialogue of his children. Denise (11) and Heinrich (14), we are expected to believe, speak and act with the emotional and intellectual range of middle aged college professors. I half expected the denouement of the novel to be silent Wilder's first words – a digression on the cultural importance of burger bars and supermarkets, or a conversation about death, or chemistry. Wilder is three. That he doesn't speak is a source of comfort to his parents – it marks him as young and death-proof – and it is comforting to the reader, who has already been freaked out by the other children's peculiar maturity.

Charles Dickens: Where to start?

In the first of our articles responding to reader requests, we’ve put together an introduction to classic Victorian author Charles Dickens.  Always wanted to read him, but never known where to start?  Not sure if its your thing at all?  Finished all his books, and want to check if you agree with us?  Read on to find out!

Also, if you want us to write an article or review based on what you want to read about, just let us know via our Facebook page.

The basics

Dickens’ novels tends to be enormous – not just in terms of pages but also in terms of characters and storylines.  Once you get over his slightly outdated style (it was over 150 years ago) then he’s a very easy read – his characters might be cartoonish, but they’re often still recognisable today, as (sadly) are some of the societal problems which he regularly attacked.

Sunday, 15 July 2012

Review: The Thread by Victoria Hislop

A fascinating historical narrative rescues Victoria Hislop’s latest novel from its somewhat two-dimensional characters and inconsistent prose style, making it ideal beach reading.

The plot loosely focuses around the developing relationship between Dimitri, a rebellious son of a wealthy merchant, and Katerina, a talented semi-orphaned seamstress, which unfolds across the first half of the twentieth century in the Greek city of Thessaloniki.  Their eventual fate is not left in doubt as they are married in the twenty-first century prologue, which means our interest is always chiefly concerned with the history of the city itself, in a manner that might remind readers of Edward Rutherfurd.

Like (I suspect) many British readers, my knowledge of the Thessalonians is limited to the biblical letters they received.  As such, the main pleasure of Hislop’s work is fascinating story of the city’s three decades of crisis, from the Great Fire of 1917 to the civil war of the late 1940s – all topics which seem to have completely eluded the British curriculum-makers.

Saturday, 14 July 2012

Where have all the poets gone?

This week, Carol Anne Duffy won the PEN/Pinter prize for poetry.  Duffy, as Poet Laureate, is probably the most famous poet operating in Britain at the moment (Seamus Heaney having of course moved to Ireland), and has an ever-increasing body of critically acclaimed poetry.  But how many people could name a single one of her poems?

This obviously isn’t limited to Duffy.  Last week we discussed the anonymity of London’s Poetry Parnassus, and indeed of Literature in general.  However, while novels are less discussed than footballers, they are still almost infinitely more successful than poems.  JK Rowling will sell millions of copies of The Casual Vacancy this autumn; Duffy, awards and all, will struggle to shift a fraction of that.

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

The Road to successful film adaptation...

(by Claire Davis)

One of the best books I have read all year has got to be The Road, by Cormac McCarthy. Stunningly written, heart-wrenchingly sad and one of the most unsettling stories I have read in my entire lifetime, its poetic language and beautifully bleak imagery left me with a very real terror at the possibilities of humanity, when the world as we know it comes to an end.

Which of course meant that the film The Road, directed by John Hillcoat, couldn't possibly match up to my expectations. Well, readers, I was actually surprised, and found myself to be wrong as I sat captivated in front of the movie version of the book last night. It was an extremely uncanny experience; as though somebody had climbed into my very own head, extracted the scenes from my imagination as I turned the pages of that book, and played them out on the big screen for me to watch. It could have been a projection of my very own perceptions. Powerful, upsetting, frightening and hauntingly (yet so paradoxically) beautiful, I was wholeheartedly impressed by the film.

Monday, 9 July 2012

Imagining a Literary Olympics

(English PEN campaign)
The world’s poets have come to London.  Did you notice?  You could be forgiven if you didn’t, as the week of events passed by with barely a ripple of interest from the national media.  The event formed part of the ongoing Cultural Olympiad, 'the largest cultural celebration in the history of the modern Olympic and Paralympic Movements'.  But if this Olympian effort has not quite managed to capture the public imagination, what might a literature-based Olympics actually look like?

Essential to the appeal of sport is its immediacy - the demonstration of outstanding skill under competitive pressure.  To that end, the most obvious analogue might be spoken word poetry, particularly in the competitive format of the rap battle, exemplified in the YouTube video of rapping school teacher Mark Grist which went viral in the spring (video below, which includes strong language).  Purists might sneer at the association of such contests as 'literary', but such claims date back at least a decade now, and in terms of re-creating the atmosphere of competitive sport it has no obvious rival - the top YouTube comments even suggest international rivalry could feature, although 'LOL UK rap scene is the best in the world, simple.' might not win over those aforementioned purists.

Review: The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson

Psychopaths? (from top) Emmanuel Constant (via wehaitians.com), Haitian death-squad leader; Albert John Dunlop (via Asylum), corporate downsizer; Bob Hare, creator of 'The Psychopath Test' (via Vancouver Institute); Jon Ronson (via aarkangel.wordpress.com).

As with much journalism, the real interest in Jon Ronson's book is found in the eccentrics he meets, rather than the ideas that he brushes over. He admits as much himself when he begins to discuss the implications of the media's obsession with the mad. Is it exploitative? he wonders, but that's about as far as he gets.